“Reframing”

On Thursday morning, as I drove around in the snow, I listened to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talk about the Green New Deal on NPR. As the interview unfolded, I began to cry, right there in my car. These strong emotions surprised me in that moment when I should have been solely focused on traveling safely. Certainly, I was feeling relief and joy at boldness of the legislation itself. Finally, we have serious national leadership on climate change! I sensed, though, that there was something else prompting this reaction, something about the way Ocasio-Cortez communicates, something about the way her voice, her presence and her vision reframes politics itself.

She answered the interviewer’s questions fully and non-defensively. And I realized that in our political climate, that simple openness to real conversation feels revolutionary. I was also impressed by her approach to conflict with fellow leaders in her own party. She’s criticized some of them for taking money from energy companies, for example. So the interviewer asked if she lacks trust in her colleagues. She replied: “I don’t think trust is the right word for it. I do think that when there’s a wide spectrum of debate on an issue that is where the public plays a role and where I do have trust is in my colleague’s capacity to change and evolve and be adaptable and listen to their constituents.”

This is the same sort of wisdom I see in our work with ISAIAH. When we organize and mobilize and testify out of the deep values that motivate us, we are also asking our politicians to listen to their own inner compasses, to lead with greater authenticity. All of us are a complicated mix of good and evil. Breakthroughs happen when stop villainizing each other and start holding each other accountable to a common good. Toward the end, the interviewer asked Ocasio-Cortez this fabulous question: “Do you feel that you know how to take the take the great fame that you have won over the last several months and turn it into power?” “No,” she replied, again with unguarded honesty. She went on to say:

I’m learning. I think that really what I hope we’re able to do as a party and as a nation is rediscover the power of public imagination. I think that this is a very special moment and frankly that is something that that I think the President did do. In that he was able to take his profile and say here’s this hugely impossible thing that seems ridiculous but I’m going to seriously push for it. And for him that’s his wall. And obviously I’m diametrically opposed to it but I think that the reason he’s so attached to this thing despite the fact that it’s not what voters want, despite the fact that it’s not what the American people want, is that it’s the only vision he has. He has no other picture of America except an America with a huge wall on the southern border. And I think that what we have a responsibility to do is show what another America looks like.[1]

This call to public imagination, this summons to envision what America could look like, really moved me. It feels like we’re on the threshold of a new sort of politics, a different way of being together. Or like we can at least see the doorway from here. Reflecting on all this, it struck me that Epiphany is the church’s season of imagination. This is the time of revealing who Jesus is, of showing what his ministry means for the world of unveiling what following him looks like in our lives. In today’s story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus invited those first disciples to see with new eyes, to share in the divine vision. He summoned them to look for and move toward the world as God imagines it can be.

In calling the fishermen, Jesus created a metaphor that drew upon the concrete reality of their daily lives. “Put out into deep water and let your nets down for a catch,” he invited them. It’s safe to assume that these men occupied a place of relative economic security within the economy of Rome. Unlike many who labored like slaves on the estates of the wealthy these fishermen owned their own boats and equipment. They were not just fishing for subsistence. They had a business that brought income to their families. Among an occupied people, these men had some privilege.

“Put out into deep water and let your nets down for a catch.” This was strange timing. It was well past dawn and they had long ago quit fishing. They’d loaned Jesus one of their boats to use as a pulpit. They were mending their nets and listening to him teach. They were probably about ready to go home and get a good day’s sleep. “Put out into deep water and let your nets down for a catch,” Jesus insisted. “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” Again and again, they had cast their nets over the side of the boat and again and again, hauled them into the boats empty. Why would they expect a different outcome now? The muscles of their hope were sore, exhausted. They were stuck. They had reached a dead end. They simply could not imagine what God could do with fish nets, let alone with the pain of the society they inhabited. They could not see their own part in bringing forth a new way, a new world. So Jesus urged Simon Peter and his colleagues to reframe their futile night of fishing, to envision what could still be possible, what might emerge out of the emptiness and frustration. Or, as the prophet Isaiah had put it centuries earlier, what holy seed might be hidden in the stump of desolation, what new life might emerge from complete destruction.

It is really a joy to have Susan Gangsei’s amazing tapestries inhabiting our sacred space. And it’s wonderful to have Susan with us this morning. If discipleship is about sharing in the vision of what God imagines for the world, then it seems to me that art of all kinds is an essential guide and companion in our spiritual lives. Art is part of our prayer and our discipleship. Here’s what came to me when I spent some prayerful time with Susan’s creation tapestry. The overall design reminds me of the ancient Hebrew cosmology—the dome of the sky holding back the waters above, the pillars of the earth, anchored in the waters below. Those waters are no ordinary sea. They are the great deep, tehom, the primordial chaos, the gateway to the land of the dead. Those waters also make an appearance in today’s Gospel text. “Put out into deep water and let your nets down for a catch.” Deep water, bathos, that’s the word used to translate tehom in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible.

Creation, in the biblical understanding, is an ongoing struggle between God and chaos. And for me, that tension is present in the tapestry. I notice that it is filled with orderly patterns and geometric shapes: dots, lines, triangles. And I notice that the tongue of the serpent, which chokes itself and attempts to strangle the tree of life, is red. And I see that red dots and stripes are woven into the green leaves of the tree and the strong pillars of the earth. Here’s what I sense that God is showing me in my dialogue with this piece of art: good can only reach its full potential when evil presses it, holds it to account; even as the churning waters of the deep threaten creation, they also provide the energy of life. And this is the sort of creative, chaotic process that is happening right now in our world, in our politics.

In addition to meeting Susan and talking with her about her art, I invite you to take a few moments, during coffee hour today, to wander around Pilgrim Hall until you find a tapestry that calls to you, that seems to want to speak to you. Then pause, and study it. Ask yourself, what do I notice? What do I see? What feelings or thoughts or memories does this art evoke in me? What do I believe is God is inviting me to imagine through this piece today?

“Put out into deep water and let your nets down for a catch,” Jesus insisted. “If you say so,” Simon Peter replied. And so many fish leapt into those nets that they began to break. For me these bulging nets represent the insight that through the ministry of Jesus, God strains the world’s imagination. That discipleship means opening ourselves to a God who rips holes in our sense of what is possible, who frays our assumptions of scarcity, who breaks through our complacency and privilege, and who heaps a teeming, wriggling mass of vision into our boats. God fills us with such an abundance of joy and freedom that we begin to sink, and then learn to swim, in those deep and chaotic waters, God’s bathos and tehom, God’s chaotic order, God’s life amid death. “Put out into deep water and let your nets down for a catch.”

Amen.

[1] https://www.npr.org/about-npr/692067268/npr-news-exclusive-with-rep-alexandria-ocasio-cortez-on-her-green-new-deal; https://www.npr.org/2019/02/07/692259103/ocasio-cortez-to-unveil-ambitious-plan-to-combat-climate-change